From the Mediterranean Sea to the Bight of Benin: Trade and Cultures of Red Coral

On wedding day, middle- and upper-class brides and grooms in Benin City often display sumptuous ornaments made of coral beads. This ‘tradition’ is the result of a century-old cross-cultural trade. On the one hand, my research project aims at outlining the history of coral fishery and manufacturing on the long run and at reconstructing the commodity chains of red coral (Corallium rubrum) which, through to the intermediation of Sephardic and Christian merchants, used to connect the shores of the Maghreb with the Bight of Benin by the way of port cities of Italian states and of Atlantic Europe. On the other, it uses a variety of written and visual sources to explore the multiple cultural meanings associated to coral in various Mediterranean, European and African contexts. As we know, in Europe and the Mediterranean coral was employed to make charms protecting infants against the ‘evil eye’, as a pharmaceutical element, as well as for religious objects such as Catholic rosaries or Jewish Torah-pointers. And of course – as the works by Gedalia Yogev and Francesca Trivellato have shown – it was exported in substantial quantities to India and other Asian regions, where coral had been – since the antiquity – a highly priced commodity. By contrast, the export of coral to sub-Saharan Africa has received far less scholarly attention. Red coral was actually traded to and used in different African contexts, stretching at least from the empires of the Niger bend to the Kingdom of Kongo. However, in no other polity it attained such a prominent material and symbolic value as in the Kingdom of Benin (Nigeria), where starting from the late 15th century coral became a crucial attribute of the king (Oba) and his dignitaries, the object of severe sumptuary norms, as well as a key-element of dynastic mythologies, ritual practices and art.

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